Bhubaneswar: In a rare instance of a politician paving way for removal of a memorial dedicated to his father, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has agreed to the demolition of the Biju Patnaik Memorial (samadhi) at Swargadwar on the sea beach of Puri. By ordering the removal, Patnaik has put an end to a controversy smouldering for two decades and silenced his critics.
Naveen Patnaik, who returned to power for a record fifth term in Odisha in the April-May elections, took the decision to remove the Biju Patnaik Memorial at a high-level meeting he chaired on Friday evening. The 74-year-old chief minister, who heads the ruling party Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which is named after his late father, also announced that an amount of Rs 5 crore has been sanctioned in the first phase for a major facelift of Swargadwar.
“Swargadwar is a holy land of faith. It will be developed in line with the development work going on in Puri town. Bijubabu resides in the hearts of crores of Odias. Whatever was there at Swargadwar in the name of Bijubabu will now be used in the service of the people of Odisha,” tweeted the Chief Minister.
Swargadwar, literally meaning “gateway to heaven,” is the most cherished cremation ground in Odisha. Situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Puri, it is integrally linked to the cult of Lord Jagannath, whose 12th-century temple stands nearby, and is believed to have celestial importance. Mentioned in the mythologies, this cremation ground on the sandy beaches occupies a unique and highly revered place in the hearts of Hindus.
It is an ancient belief in Odisha that people whose bodies are cremated at Swargadwar mingle straight with the divine, a phenomenon that is described as ‘Baikuntha prapti”. The unique geographical position of Swargadwar, it is widely believed, enables one’s mortal being to melt directly into the five elementary entities that make up all life on earth.
This widely held belief is strengthened mainly by the fact that the ocean wind blowing over Swargadwar always moves in the direction of the Jagannath temple and touches the flag fluttering at its top.
The mortal remains of Biju Patnaik, a two-term former chief minister of Odisha who died on April 17, 1997, were consigned to the flames at Swargadwar. An effort was made by some local workers of the state’s ruling BJD to erect a samadhi sthal for the iconic leader there. In 1999, the Puri Municipality had built a 40ft-by-40ft concrete tombstone of the top leader spread over an acre of land.
As the memorial led to a shrinking of the space available for general public to continue cremating their dead at Swargadwar, muted protests arose. With BJD ruling the state and Naveen Patnaik visiting the site every year during the birth and death anniversaries of his father to pay floral tributes to him, the protests failed to make any impact.
But a petition was filed in 1999 at Puri Civil Court seeking directions to prevent the construction of the memorial so that Swargadwar remains available to the public for cremation purposes. The court had ruled on December 27, 2014 that the memorial was unauthorised and that the district administration and Puri Municipality must remove the structure in three months.
“All those who thought Bijubabu has encroached on Swargadwara land were mistaken. Bijubabu lives in the hearts of the Odisha people. Naveenbabu has now proved that he will do whatever it takes to safeguard the interests of the people of Odisha,” said senior BJD leader and school and mass education minister Samir Ranjan Dash.
While Naveen Patnaik’s decision to remove the memorial was widely welcomed across Odisha and BJD leaders called it the “CM’s sacrifice” for the people, the Opposition BJP and Congress disagreed vehemently.
“This is no sacrifice by the CM. A lower court had ordered the removal of the memorial and said that nobody’s memorial can be built at Swargadwara. So he is finally abiding by a judicial order,” said senior Congress leader and MLA Suresh Routray.
Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Pradipta Kumar Naik of BJP, said: “The CM always uses ploys to divert public attention from hot topics of the time. Whenever there is a spate of murders or rape incidents in the state, he talks about things like 5T, KALIA scheme and so on.”
As per the CM’s decision, the modernisation of Swargadwar by adding a number of amenities for the public will be completed within six months. But questions are already being asked about whether the government will take a similar step to free about 15 acres of land around Swargadwar from encroachment by influential people.
“All illegal encroachments on the sea beach at Puri have to be removed. Now that Biju Patnaik’s memorial is being removed, all other encroachments there must be removed, too. If the government does not act, we will begin a massive agitation,” said Suresh Routray.